It seems strange to think that Scott Walker should have been as substantial and significant a part of my misspent youth as Britpop, Trip-Hop and chasing women who looked like they ought to have been members of Vanilla. But that’s exactly what he was.
The four albums – yes those four – that I and most of the people that I hung around with listened to virtually non-stop throughout the nineties had been recorded almost thirty years previously; and, given that they were in a very strange and roundabout way aimed at least by Philips Records at the same sort of people who liked that nice Engelbert Humperdinck , they should logically have – as another cultural icon who was already beginning to feel a little out of step by that point (but lordy, did we not know what was coming) might have put it – said nothing to us about our lives. But outsiders working from the inside will always find a resonance and an audience, and in some ways it’s small wonder that Scott 1, Scott 2, Scott 3 and inevitably Scott 4 (and frequently overlooked non-album tracks The Plague and The Rope And The Colt) should have been given such regular post-night out airings in between The Cardigans and Portishead to a backdrop of alcopops, massive clouds of debatable legality and Eurotrash. After all, his influence was all over a lot of the more contemporary music we were into, whether it was Blur getting a bit introspective on the likes of Badhead and Young And Lovely, Brett Anderson disappearing down some kind of distressing Andrew Lloyd Weber Goes Indie orchestral black hole towards the end of Dog Man Star, Belle And Sebastian looking for a third track to slot onto one of those staggering EPs, or anything Neil Hannon turned his hand to before that eyebrow got so arched that it lodged itself permanently three feet above his head. Before anyone tuts and scoffs and goes ‘cuh’ at the lack of Sings Songs From His TV Series, incidentally, they were the only ones that were available on CD at that point, and the latter could only be found on incredibly expensive second hand vinyl that invariably had three bare white patches on the cover where someone had stuck a coffee mug on it at some point. I first discovered Scott Walker via a compilation tape, as you can find out here, but in those days there was an extent to which you had to take what you could get and you Spotify evangelists don’t know how good you’ve got it. Anyway, we’re straying from the point a bit there. The point being that we all loved his sixties output because it was dense, deep, thickly orchestral… and, well, funny.
No, really. You can pause from writing your dreadful essays about how Nick Drake was ‘suicided by society’ or whatever it is to deliver a stern blathering on about the underlying inverted Hegelian metaphor inherent in Scott’s Camus references and how noticing that and going ‘aaaaaahh!’ makes you somehow so much cleverer than anyone who bought Supernatural Giver by Kinky Machine all you like, but the fact remains that whether intentional or not – and frankly I think at least some of it was – a lot of his music and lyrics were downright hilarious. For starters there’s the second most preposterously brilliant – or brilliantly preposterous, I’m not sure – lyric in the entire history of recorded sound, “his mother called him Ivan – then she died”. There’s the deliberate and targetedly camp and tongue-in-cheek delivery of specific lines in his Jacques Brel covers. There’s the entirety of 30 Century Man, which if it isn’t the sound of Scott trying to bag Ray Davies’ slot on the late-night BBC2 satire shows then frankly I don’t know what is. There’s the Terry Scott Falls Through A Chair comedy trombone at the end of The Girls And The Dogs. There’s the fact that when we weren’t all sitting around singing along to Rosemary and The World’s Strongest Man, we could quite often be found bellowing ‘Scott Shouts’ like “GODDANEWSUIT” and “NEXT!” into each other’s answering machines. There’s rewriting The Seventh Seal and Amsterdam to be lost episodes of Mr. Benn. There’s Richard Herring leaving Stewart Lee speechless on Radio 1 – yes, they were playing him too, which you can read a lot more about in Fun At One – by advising listeners to “don’t forget to do what Scott says, and go out and sleep with The Girls From The Streets”. While it’s not exactly his direct responsibility, there was the time that I got on a bus at the height of Britpop, thinking I was dressed down, only for a voice from the back to cheerfully shout “alright, Scott Walker?”. And of course there was the The Seventh Seal To Rhymes Of Goodbye Challenge, about which probably the less said the better. Other than that I wonder what would have happened if The Rope And The Colt had been tagged onto the end.
It didn’t finish with the sixties albums – I have to admit that I never much cared for ‘Til The Band Comes In, The Moviegoer or Fetch Armstrong or whatever it was called to be honest – either; the simultaneously terrifying and thrilling Industrial-influenced comeback album Tilt came out while I was at University, and while it’s certainly a dense and impenetrable work that it appears to have taken a lot of people a very long time to understand (and it’s also worth noting that it came out around the same time as David Bowie’s bafflingly less lauded Industrial-tinged album 1. Outside, which despite the rubber gloves you’ll find it being treated with elsewhere, is one of his finest achievements if you ignore the bits where he pretends to be Eric Pode Of Croydon), there are significant parts of it where you can only conclude that Scott was, well, taking the piss. The verse on the lyric sheet that’s just a square. The ‘singing in the shower’ bit of The Cockfighter. The baffling feeding-a-dog “here you are boy, here you are” intro to Manhattan. “Those over there are like… those over there”. The silly flute bits on Patriot (A Single). The very idea that anyone might have considered Patriot ‘A Single’. Small wonder, then, that I was once confronted by a friend’s girlfriend asking – more aghast than angry – “were you two singing along to Tilt at 3am??”.
You should always be able to laugh at anything you love and Scott Walker’s music is no exception. But it also slotted so neatly into those hazy, Blue Jam-esque late nights with a similar mix of ambient sounds with dark themes and silly nonsense, and those who look for meaning and self-validation in his music will never know the joy of either. While you’re off looking, though, can you explain what all that business with a child apparently pursuing an airborne William Hartnell in Plastic Palace People is all about? Thanks.
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If you’ve enjoyed this, you’ll enjoy Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Amsterdam by Scott Walker is one of the tracks featured in Tape Over This And I Will Thump You, a fond look back at the days of Compilation Tapes; you can find it here.
The World Of David Bowie is a similarly purist-baiting and similarly personal look at the career of David Bowie, which you can find here. All Its Wonder To Know considers whether the deep and ‘meaningful’ fans really do understand Nick Drake better than everyone else, as they appear to think they do; you can find it here.
© Tim Worthington.
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